Good News! Former Guantánamo Prisoners Released from UAE to Afghanistan


Two of the three Afghan nationals and former Guantánamo prisoners who were recently repatriated to Afghanistan, having initially been released from Guantánamo to the UAE in 2016-17. On the top row: Hamidullah (aka Mawlawi Hamdullah Tarakhail) photographed at Guantánamo over a decade ago, and subsequently photographed after his return to Afghanistan. On the bottom row: Obaidullah, photographed before his capture at the age of 18, and subsequently photographed after his return to Afghanistan.

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At the start of the year, I stumbled across a couple of news sources reporting that three former Guantánamo prisoners — all Afghan nationals — had been repatriated to Afghanistan from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where they had been sent by Barack Obama between November 2015 and January 2017, just before Donald Trump took office.

The reason for the men’s release wasn’t given in these reports, and while I picked up a few hints about what had happened on my US trip to call for the closure of Guantánamo (from January 10-20), it wasn’t until last week that I was alerted to a more thorough explanation of their repatriation, via the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), “an independent non-profit policy research organisation,” established in 2009, and, specifically, via ‘Freed at Last: Three Afghans sent to Guantánamo in 2002 and 2003 are finally home,’ an article by Kate Clark, who has been involved wth Afghanistan since 1999 when she was the BBC’s Kabul correspondent, and who, in 2016, authored a detailed report, “Kafka in Cuba: The Afghan Experience in Guantánamo.”

In total, 23 men were sent from Guantánamo to the UAE — five Yemenis in November 2015, 12 Yemenis and three Afghans in August 2016 (see here and here), and one Russian, one Afghan and one Yemeni in January 2017 — but as Kate Clark explains, although the men “sent to the UAE believed — as did their families and lawyers — that they were also heading for temporary detention and then resettlement and family reunion,” what transpired instead was that, “for almost all of the last three years, the UAE authorities … held them in al-Rizan maximum security prison”, where they “were allowed family visits, but were not permitted to see their lawyers or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).”

The three men released are Hamidullah (ISN 1119), now 58 years old, from Kabul, who, as Kate Clark describes him, was a “dealer in property and second-hand cars” from a family that was prominent in the Hezb-e Islami movement, Mohammed Kamin (ISN 1045), an imam in his early 40s from Khost, and Obaidullah (ISN 762), also from Khost, who is now 36 years old, and was just 18 when he was first seized.

Over the years, I have covered all their stories extensively. None of the three had any meaningful allegations of involvement with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces levelled against them, and yet all had their ongoing imprisonment approved through a succession of flawed review processes under Presidents Bush and Obama (the former’s Combatant Status Review Tribunals and Administrative Review Boards, and the latter’s Guantánamo Review Task Force), until, eventually, the second review process set up by Obama, the Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process, approved them for release — Kamin in September 2015, Hamidullah in February 2016, and Obaidullah in May 2016.

Absurdly, both Kamin and Obaidullah had even been put forward for military commission trials at Guantánamo. Kamin was charged under George W. Bush in March 2008, but had the charges against him dropped by the Obama administration in December 2009, while Obaidullah, as I railed against in an article entitled, Guantánamo trials: another insignificant Afghan charged, was charged under Bush in September 2008, and was charged again under Obama in January 2010, an occasion that I marked with another blazingly indignant article, this one entitled, Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission. The charges against him were only finally dropped in June 2011, and see here for an article I subsequently wrote detailing how his military defense team had established his innocence via some commendable detective work in the field in Afghanistan.

As Kate Clark also explained, the release of the three men came about as a consequence of a peace agreement in September 2016 between Hezb-e Islami and the Afghan government, signed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hezb-e Islami, and the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. A major recipient of western funds during the Soviet occupation, Hekmatyar had opposed the US-led invasion in 2001 and the establishment of Hamid Karzai’s government, and had been in exile in Pakistan, from where he had continued to resist the US presence in his homeland, and Karzai’s government. Following the peace agreement, he returned to Afghanistan in May 2017, ending what Al-Jazeera described as “two decades in hiding.”

AAN was told by Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel, the chairman of the commission charged with implementing the peace agreement, that the Afghan government “had been working initially to secure the release of Hamidullah, who comes from a prominent Hezb-e Islami family in Kabul – his father was the religious scholar, Mullah Sayed Agha Tarakhel, who died while Hamidullah was in Guantánamo.” In the course of seeking his release, however, it also came to the attention of the Afghan authorities that three other Afghans who were former Guantánamo prisoners were also held in the UAE, and so their release was sought as well.

However, although Mohammed Kamin and Obaidullah were all released, the fourth Afghan, Wali Mohammed (ISN 560), is still held. Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel told AAN that the government was still “pushing for the UAE to send Wali Mohammed soon to Kabul,” and “had been talking directly to the UAE government.” When asked if the Afghan government “had contacted the Americans before agreeing to release the men back to Afghanistan,” Amarkhel “said he did not know.”

For the men freed in Afghanistan, it is difficult to gauge the relief they must now be feeling after their long ordeal. Below I’m cross-posting an interview with Hamidullah (described as Mawlawi Hamdullah Tarakhail), which was conducted after his release by the Anadolu Agency, an international news agency based in Turkey. In it, he discussed not only his treatment in US custody, but also in the UAE, and it is also worth noting that Kate Clark contrasted the treatment of the Afghans in the UAE with that of two other Afghans who had been sent to Oman at the same time: Bostan Karim, “a businessman who had a plastic flower shop in Khost,” and Abdul Zaher, from Logar, who, as she described it, “were freed by the Omani authorities after a short spell in detention and have been resettled in Oman and their families allowed to join them,” but the only restrictions on them being that, to date, “they have not been allowed to travel.”

I hope that, in the not too distant future, we will have some more good news from the UAE regarding the other prisoners sent there between 2015 and 2017.

Below, please find the cross-post of the interview with Hamidullah (Mawlawi Hamdullah Tarakhail) that I mentioned above, and for a brief and rather disjointed article about Obaidullah (accompanied by a video), see this Afghan article, and this short article about Hamidullah.

Obaidullah, who “became the father of a baby girl only three days before his arrest,” and was always living with her memories in the jail” (Guantánamo), said after his release, “I want my children to go to school and study, because we cannot achieve development without learning. Afghanistan needs its children to study and become educated.”

Mohammad Akram, one of Obaidullah’s brothers, explained how they discovered his whereabouts after this capture. “We had no information about Obaidullah for two and half years,” he said, adding, “however, there were some rumors in the media that he was transferred to Guantánamo prison. We received a letter from him after two and half a years, then the letters started coming from him more regularly with the help of ICRC and then we started having online calls.”

Former Guantánamo inmate relates painful ordeal
By Shadi Khan Saif, Anadolu Agency, January 1, 2020

Mawlawi Hamdullah Tarakhail was a young Afghan Mujahedeen veteran when U.S. forces captured him and sent him to the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison.

One among thousands of alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan’s capital held at the detention center, Tarakhail — after spending more than 15 years in chains, undergoing physical persecution and psychological torture — was recently freed at the age of 58.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, he shared what he went through during those years and his views of the way things are unfolding in his war-ravaged country, which is facing an unwavering Taliban insurgency amid the presence of thousands of foreign troops.

Anadolu Agency: Thank you for speaking to us. To start with, could you briefly tell us why, how, and when were you taken into custody?

Tarakhail: It was the early days [after] the fall of the Taliban and the arrival of the US. We expected them to help us rebuild our country, and as an Hezb-e-Islami Jehadi commander, I was simply monitoring the situation. Suddenly one night, the US forces combined with the Northern Alliance forces of the interim government in Kabul under Hamid Karzai raided my home and threw me into Bagram prison.

In Bagram, I faced atrocities beyond explanation. They [Americans] asked me a couple of questions, and they told me that you are a key figure of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami and wanted to attack US forces. I told them I have no ties with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but yes, I am a Hezb-e-Islami leader, and this party has many members serving in the government. But they didn’t listen to me as they had plans to suppress all key Taliban and other experienced Mujahedeen figures.

For many months, we were in Bagram before being moved to Guantánamo Bay.

Q: Could you tell us what sort of atrocities you faced in Bagram? Any specific examples?

Tarakhail: There are many. One example I can share with you is that they [Americans] would completely undress us and put us in chains whenever we wanted to go to the toilet. They would shout in our ears, force us on the shoulders, and parade us naked to the shower. For us Muslims, this is disgraceful. The food was awful. In just four months, I lost 20 kg. In the holy month of Ramadan, only a half loaf of bread was served to us. When we moved to Guantánamo Bay, the food and services were much better, and each cell had a toilet. Things gradually improved.

Q: How was your prison term judged? What were you convicted of?

Tarakhail: In six months’ time, a tribunal would investigate and review our cases, interviews, and set the date for another hearing in the next six months. All of our communications with our families were under their surveillance. [Note: The tribunal referred to is presumably the parole-type Periodic Review Board system established by President Obama. Previously, Tarakhail had repeatedly had his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial approved by internal review processes under the Bush administration, and had also been recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force].

They simply couldn’t prove that I committed a crime or legitimize my custody. But I kept being persecuted. The punishments and persecutions were of a different sort, and when the inmates resisted, it caused more persecution and torture. We were away from home and family and had an unknown fate for years. I have faced many prisons, but being away from home and family is very painful. There were prisoners from some 40 Muslim countries with us.

Q: How many prisoners are still there?

Tarakhail: Some 40 to 50 prisoners are still left. There were thousands of them at the beginning  [Note: The total number of men held is now 40, and, in total, 779 men were held by the US military at Guantánamo]. They [Americans] only provided for our needs when we raised our voices. I will give you one example: I had a copy of the Holy Quran. They forcefully wanted it back from me. They used force, and I made it clear to them that I would only hand it over to a person in line with our religious values. It was later resolved through the help of a translator and a high-ranking general. I remained careful to avoid more persecution.

In the beginning, there were some military officers who had lost family members in the 9/11 attacks, so some of them violated the prison rules and persecuted prisoners beyond the rules.

Q: How did you prove your innocence and get free eventually?

Tarakhail: I was told that there are no issues with me and I am innocent, but they said the US felt threatened by me. I had no crime proven against me, but they insisted I was deemed dangerous and should be imprisoned. I was told that if I wished to go back to Afghanistan, I would not be allowed because I seemed a threat.

Q: So does that mean they wanted to keep you in prison until you got old and might not be physically active?

Tarakhail: Most definitely. They deliberately made some people lose their mind, lose their ability to be active. They decided the same for me. I wasn’t convicted until my release [Note: This must mean something along the lines of, “In the end, I was released without ever having been charged with anything”].

I’ve faced many prisons, but the worst was our stay in the UAE. It was un-Islamic and against human rights. We were told in Guantánamo about transferring us to the UAE, and a rosy picture was painted for us for our six-month stay in the UAE, so we approved and agreed to this offer by the US Foreign Ministry. But as soon as we landed in the UAE, the Americans freed our hands and handed us over to UAE officials. We were bundled into a car and our clothes were torn off. We were shocked because we expected to be treated as guests rather than prisoners. Later, we were moved to a UAE prison facility, and our clothes were again torn off to be replaced with different ones. We were given new clothes and forced into another cell. We were naked and handcuffed for even five-minute toilet breaks. This behavior continued for more than two months. When things got worse and prisoners started protesting, we were moved to another facility with toilets inside our room. We were kept in there for close to one-and-a-half years.

The US. had transferred prisoners to other countries, but the UAE treated us the worst. I urge the Afghan government to take action against the UAE and close its embassy in Kabul. Anyone seeking jihad should wage it elsewhere, in Yemen and Syria, but leave Afghanistan because the Afghans can handle it on their own.

I am ready to take legal action against the US and the UAE at the international court. I was well-established in Afghanistan, but the imposed war and persecution inflicted heavy losses on us and the entire nation. I want justice in international court.

Q: How do you see the changes in Afghanistan since your release, and the future of Afghanistan amid ongoing peace talks?

Tarakhail: Looking at the divisions among Afghan leaders and the lack of independence and authority in the country, I have no hope for peace in the future. The war is likely to go on. I have spent some 23 years in prison altogether, including in the Soviet era, but I want to bring positive change through people power. I urged the Taliban and the government to stop fighting. We are an oppressed nation. The democrats, communists, and pro-Islamic forces should unite and acknowledge that all of them have made mistakes over the past many years. All should now unite to serve the nation. They all have made mistakes. These three factions should now seek forgiveness and seek pardon from Allah, and the government should remove its internal corruption to win the public’s trust.

The presence of the US remains an issue. The Taliban are right to demand their exit. The government is defending the US staying. The government should instead ask the Americans to leave. The US has its own global agenda. Look at Yemen and the rest of the world. They are at war with China and Russia. They are exploiting our weakness. I call upon the Americans not to turn Afghanistan into a battlefield against their enemies. The Americans should face justice and pay us for the losses they have inflicted on us in the past 18 years. Afghanistan is a weak country. We can’t fight with the world. We’ve been at war for 40 years. We need assistance to rebuild the country.

Q: The former Mujahedeen factions have long historical ties with the US. Is there a possibility for improved ties with the US again?

Tarakhail: As an individual, I have been resisting and fighting since the Soviet invasion. I killed scores of Soviet fighters. I was with the mujahedeen at the first entry point in Kabul against the Soviets, but I’ve been made to suffer a lot. Still, I’m ready to forgive and forget. But the American leaders should acknowledge their mistakes and seek forgiveness from Afghanistan. We have no intention of rivalry with the US. Instead, we’re in need of them. They should seek pardon and repay us for the losses and damage they caused in Afghanistan.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, reporting the good news that three Afghan nationals and former Guantanamo prisoners, who were amongst 23 former Guantanamo prisoners sent to the UAE between 2015 and 2017, have been repatriated following a peace agreement negotiated between the Afghan government and former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hesb-e Islami movement in 2016.

    The peace agreement initially involved a commitment to try to secure the release of one of the Afghans, Hamidullah, who had family connections with Hesb-e Islami, but was then expanded to include two other Afghans – Obaidullah and Mohammed Kamin, both extremely insignificant individuals who, nevertheless, had, absurdly, been put forward for military commission trials under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obaidullah, who became a father just three days before his capture in an incompetent night raid, was just 18 at the time of his capture, and lost half his life in US and UAE custody. A fourth Afghan is still held in the UAE, as are some, if not all of the other men transferred there by Obama between 2015 and 2017.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Finally good news! After these weeks of reading Mitchell and Jessen testifying, it’s been disturbing and infuriating.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s a little bit of an antidote to the depressing torture news, isn’t it, Natalia?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks for this happy news. All these lost years …

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, all those lost years for all of them, Ann, although I’ve always been particularly saddened by Obaidullah’s predicament – abducted from his home at the age of 18, just three days after his daughter was born.

  6. anna says...

    You made my day, thanks Andy ! Life won’t be easy for them in Afghanistan either, but they’ll not only be out of physical shackles, but also with family, eating familiar food and hearing their own language everywhere around them. Seemingly small things that we all take for granted, amazing emotions for them. Not to mention Obaidullah seeing his now 18 yrs old daughter for the first time. There aren’t all that many freed Guantanamo prisoners who were ever allowed to returned to their own country, so they really are lucky. May the Afghan left behind in the UAE also soon taste that joy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. I thought you would enjoy this news!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Sad news from Afghanistan – as recounted by former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, who noted on Facebook, “Mawlawi Hamdullah Tarakhail has died at age of 59. He was neither Al-Qaeda nor Taliban, yet he spent 15 years at Guantánamo and over 3 years at UAE jail where he was treated worse than Guantánamo. He was just freed 4 months ago.”

  9. Ethan Winters says...

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ethan. I hadn’t heard that before. I’ll have to double-check!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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